Leak gets a quick fix, but where is Highlands spill? | AspenTimes.com

Leak gets a quick fix, but where is Highlands spill?

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

A chemical leak in the heating system of a residential building at Aspen Highlands Village has apparently been plugged, temporarily, but at least one environmental official wants to know where the escaped fluid went.

Meanwhile, homeowners are wondering why a serious defect has cropped up in the plumbing of a brand-new building and worrying that they’ll be asked to foot what could be a substantial repair bill.

The leak was first detected in mid-December. A mixture of water and propylene glycol that circulates through the system was disappearing at a rate of about 23 gallons a day. The glycol, essentially antifreeze, makes up about 30 percent of the mix.

Reducing the flow in the system, in conjunction with the introduction of a sealant to plug holes, has stopped the leak or leaks for now, according to Steve Elliott, manager of the Wille Residence Homeowners Association.

“All they did was mask the problem. What they did was create a time bomb,” charged Steve Saunders, a Wille Residence homeowner. “They put a Band-Aid on a bullet hole.”

The introduction of the sealant was done without the homeowners’ consent and against the advice of the firm that maintains the boiler, Saunders added.

But, the move buys time to find the problem and keeps the system running so residents can remain in their homes, Elliott said.

Last week, the state was prepared to order that the heating system be shut down if the leak was not addressed quickly. The city was ready to put up residents in its Truscott Place housing project if need be. The 13 condos in Wille Residence are deed-restricted units owned by local workers.

Ultimately, however, the state’s Water Quality Control Division, an arm of the Colorado Department of Health, backed off on its call to shut the system down after tests indicated the underground pipes carrying the fluid were not the source of the leak, according to Tom Schaffer, the division’s West Slope field office supervisor.

Wille Residence is heated by a boiler located in the Maroon Creek Station building at Highlands Village. The two buildings are connected by a main line, which is actually two pipes ? one carrying the heated fluid to the Wille building and another that returns it to the boiler.

“There was no leakage out of those pipes,” Schaffer said, citing the conclusions of the consultants who ran several tests on the underground pipes.

“We’re satisfied that it’s not leaking into the ground,” he reiterated Wednesday.

“Where the hell is the close to 700 gallons of mix right now?” Saunders mused. “Where did it go? That’s a lot of liquid somewhere.”

Lee Cassin, director of Aspen’s Environmental Health Department, would like to know the answer, too.

“Where is the stuff? Did it leak into the air ? just evaporate? Is it in the soil somewhere? Is it in a building somewhere where it could cause problems?” she said. “I won’t rest easy until they find where the leaks are and permanently fix it so it doesn’t happen again.”

The glycol mixture is not considered hazardous, but the state was concerned from an ecological standpoint, according to Schaffer, especially given the village’s proximity to Maroon Creek.

“It’s not a toxic-type chemical,” Schaffer said. “However, it will, as it breaks down, take the oxygen out of the water and that would kill fish.”

It is against the law to discharge chemicals into the ground, he added.

No evidence of a leak is apparent in the walls or ceilings of the Wille Residence condos, according to Elliott.

“We’ve stopped the introduction of fluid into wherever it was going,” he said. “We don’t know where it was going; we’re all of the opinion it’s not going there anymore.

“If we can’t see it coming out of somebody’s apartment, then it must be in the dirt.”

The plan now, he said, is to wait until the weather warms and the heating system can be shut down without forcing out the homeowners before resuming the search for the leak or leaks.

Elliott said he has been advised another additive can be introduced to undo the effect of the sealant so experts can locate the problem.

Adding a wrinkle to the situation ? and another source of frustration for homeowners ? was the recent discovery that the pipes between the buildings cross beneath the concrete base of the Wille Residence, instead of along the outside of the building as dictated by the specifications for the utility installations.

“Apparently, the line was to have run beside the building so you could get at it if there was a leak,” Elliott said.

If the problem is in the underground line, it could be abandoned and a new one installed, rather than tearing up the interior of the building, he said.

The Wille Residence, which opened to residents a little more than a year ago, was built by general contractor Colorado First Construction Co. Representatives of the contractor, the plumbing subcontractor, the boiler maintenance firm and other consultants have all been at work on the problem, according to Elliott.

[Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com]

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